Loose Park in Kansas City is the Site of a Civil War Battle.
Westport: The Civil War In Kansas City
In many ways, Brush Creek, or 47th Street, located in a huge valley, is a dividing line in Kansas City. To the near north lies the magnificent Spanish architecture of The Country Club Plaza, Kansas City’s gem of a shopping center, envisioned by developer J.C. Nichols in the 1906 (1). Also to the north, up the steep incline near 43rd Street is Westport Rd., home of Kansas City’s vibrant night life, easily compared to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and even better than Beale Street in Memphis. Westport has Kelly’s Bar, the Harris House and the Westport Branch of the Public Library system, all historic sites in Westport.
South of Brush Creek, Wornall Road climbs the steep southern cliffs out of the valley to the Country Club District, where J.C. Nichols built many magnificent homes now worth millions of dollars, and in the middle of these homes, in a quiet contrast to the rowdy Westport night spots, is the quiet, peaceful place of relaxation and fun, the city’s emerald, Loose Park, donated to the city by Mrs. Jacob L. Loose in 1923 (2).
Now, some 135 years after the American Civil War came to Kansas City, few citizens of the city consider that before their beautiful homes and adjoining lawns were so beautifully created, the entire Country Club district was the site of a fierce battle which changed the thrust of the South’s strategy, a strategy meant to take the western part of the theater of war and create a southern and slave territory. Instead of glorious victory, the army of the South took flight down the state line between Kansas and Missouri and never returned. This fateful conflict for the South was called The Battle of Westport.
Confederate General Sterling Price (3)
On October 23, 1864, to the north of Brush Creek, up the steep incline, where people now look for fun in the bars and entertainment centers along Westport Road, Union soldiers, part of the army of General Samuel R. Curtis, left Westport, heading downhill toward Brush Creek to meet the attack of the southern army under General Sterling Price, who had camped for the night on the southern ridge of the valley, holding the high ground (4).
At about 5 a.m. on Sunday morning, Curtis’s army, with General Blunt in command of the Westport contingent, pushed forward and crossed Brush Creek in the heart of the valley, but were attacked by Price’s army described as “swarming in corn fields and the timber.” This swarm initially pushed Blunt’s army back across to the north of Brush Creek once again. During the four hour battle, the Union soldiers remained on the defensive, trying to climb the cliffs south of Brush Creek (5).
Then, near the battlefield, with some risk to his own life, a German farmer by the name of George Thoman gave some vital information. Pointing to a gully that led up to the top of the ridge, Thoman provided the information that allowed the Union army to outflank and surprise the Confederates, breaking their advantage in holding the superior position of the ridge. The Union army poured up the ravine and commenced firing, forcing Price’s army to retreat south to prevent his army from being surrounded (6).
TOUR STOP 8: LOOSE PARK (7)
As the battle was fought nearby, the home of John Wornall, about half mile south of the ridge, continued to serve as the field hospital for the Confederate troops. Finally, when Price retreated, taking all the walking wounded with him, Mrs. Wornall and her young son Frank came out of the root cellar where they had fled for safety and welcomed the Union troops, who immediately set up their own hospital inside the Wornall home. Luckily, no damage was done to the home throughout the battle (8).
According to some, the Battle of Westport might be called “The Gettysburg of the West” (9) Some reports list the number of dead at 500 for each side (10). After the Confederates lost this significant battle, Price’s army headed south down the state line. General Price’s army was disintegrating, as they entered Linn County, Kansas. Near the Marais des Cygnes River, the Confederates camped out on the night of October 24. History has recorded many horrible crimes committed by the retreating army. The murder of old and unarmed men occurred; women and children lost their food and clothing. The rest of their belongings were destroyed (11).
Finally, the two forces met again at Mine Creek, with the Union winning another major battle, forcing the Confederates to flee into Arkansas. This was the last significant battle for General Price’s army, his defeat at Westport providing the impetus for its destruction (12).
REMEMBERING THE VICTORY
The Westport Battlefield in the Country Club District of Kansas City has not been forgotten with many historical signs depicting the sites of importance.
The main battleground itself, on top of the ridge overlooking the Country Club Plaza and Brush Creek, is no longer a corn field and a huge prairie stretching south as far as the eye can see.
This area full of huge trees, tennis courts, a beautiful little lake and a wonderful Rose garden, is now named Loose Park, and it holds a variety of interests for the Civil War buff and for others who enjoy a little history with their picnics in the park.
Kansas City has erected 23 huge markers describing the Battle of Westport. The first one is in Westport (Tour Stop 1) and Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Harris House had served as General Curtis’s home base where he watched the battle develop from its rooftop. Then the next six surround Loose Park, each one explaining a different part of the battle, with eight narrative plaques at the south end of the Park including a map of the battlefield (Tour Stop 8). A visitor following these markers gains a thorough knowledge of the strategy involved in the North’s victory (13).
But the modern day visitor should also realize that the history of Westport has continued. Before the current park was developed, Loose Park had been home to the Kansas City Country Club, an exclusive Golf Course, leased from the heirs of Hugh C. Ward, the farm land and corn fields where the Confederates were forced to flee in 1864 (14).
The Country Club was instituted in 1896 when the original Hyde Park course was abandoned. The KC Club remained open until 1925 when their lease was cancelled. During that time the Country Club had 275 members and maintained an elitist reputation. Its new location on the Kansas side of the state line remains open today (15).
The course at Loose Park included a long 506 yard par five ninth hole, running from south to north along Summit Street. This street’s extension down the ridge to Brush Creek is the same gully the Union troops had taken to pin down the Confederate army, forcing the army to retreat.
Near the ninth green, just to the west, had been a polo field during the 1920s.
Two other holes, both par threes, crossed over the pond near the present-day Wornall and 52nd Street. Hole number 16 went northeast across the pond some 106 yards. Then, hole 17 crossed the pond in a northwest direction, some 165 yards. A visitor looking west from north of the pond today can see the old fairway of hole number one as it slices between two opposing rows of big trees (16).
KANSAS CITY COUNTRY CLUB: 1896—1925 (17)
Six blocks away from the old Country Club, the John Wornall house can still be visited. Built in 1858 on 500 acres three miles south of Westport, it had been a hospital for both the North and the South on the frontier. Today, restored by the Jackson County Historical Society, it is surrounded by beautiful homes on Wornall Rd. and can be toured every day except Monday (18).
But the tour most on the minds of the citizens of Kansas Citians today usually involves a trip to the Rose Garden. Located where the greens of holes number one and number five lay close together, the Rose garden seems a fitting monument to a former battlefield. Weddings, engagements, ballet and similar events are often scheduled in the garden. Here the atmosphere of the well-tended garden and aroma of the flowers can bring peace to the heart.
MEMORIES OF LOOSE PARK IN THE YEAR 2000
Most Kansas Citians have visited Loose Park multiple times for picnics, flying kites or walking along the mile long path that circles the huge park. Looking back on these visits, they carry away memories, usually pleasant, about happy times, weddings and even tragedy.
Margaret Chaar remembers her childhood, living near the old battlefield. “My parents owned a home on Concord from the late 1940s until 1989 or 1990. My brothers and sisters and I spent many summer days at the swimming pool. It is no longer there but it was probably one two and a half feet deep at the most and was located where the swings are situated now between the rose garden and the tennis courts. Every hour we were supposed to get out of the pool for a rest period. But I remember that we would then run up to the fountain in the middle of the rose garden and play in the water. It was a great place to find a little extra change since people would throw money into it.”
Another view of the rose garden is provided by Rita Hartsook. “Four years ago on August 30th, my wedding was scheduled for the Rose Garden at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening. The weather was perfect, all the guests had arrived, the white chairs were set up but one problem – no minister. We had talked to him at least three times, and he promised to be there early. He never showed up. One caring neighbor from across the street from Loose Park saw what was happening and ran home to call a minister friend. About an hour later, over the hill with the sunset at his back came a man in a long white robe and purple sash carrying a Bible. He saved the day for us – the wedding went on just as dark surrounded the park. All the wedding guests made a circle and said “The Lord’s Prayer.” It was very spiritual, and I have always felt ‘someone’ definitely helped to make this happen.”
Another romantic moment is remembered by Ann Schwartz. “The proverbial ‘giving me a ride home’ from church near 39th and Rainbow led to a great moment in my life. A big city boy from Olathe volunteered to ‘show me the sites’ on the drive home. I remember a milkshake on The Plaza, a drive by the Nelson Gallery with its lights on at night. The city felt exciting, but safe. Then we went to Loose Park and stopped at the Rose Garden. I received my first kiss that summer evening in 1963. Small town girl in the big city for a church sponsored event meets big city boy who shows her one of Kansas City’s sublime spots. The kiss was great too.”
A memory of the lake, the ducks and the big walnut trees is shared by Sally Gordon. “My parents took me to Loose Park to see the beautiful flowers and feed the ducks in the summer. In the Fall our family picked walnuts, which were very abundant and possibly not legal to pick, but we never ended up in the ‘slammer.’ As I peruse our family’s photo album, I realize the similarities in the photos. I have pictures of myself and my own children sitting by the renovated lake feeding the ducks and I recall trying to get the dreaded walnut stains out of my children’s clothes. Needless to say, the walnut doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Rita Culver remembers winter episodes in Loose Park. “My dad would take us skating on the Loose Park pond when we were little. He would skate with us and if the ice was smooth enough he would set my friend and me on a park bench and push us around the island on the ice until the ice got too choppy. The city maintained a bonfire next to the pond to warm us up. Sometimes my friends and I went to the Rose Garden and pretended it was our estate.”
Pretending was big to Emily Fowler too, who says that when she was in college, she “used to go to Loose Park and sit in a tree with five or six friends and have a ‘Tree Party’ and relax after a stressful day of classes.”
Emily also got her start in theater, doing play productions near the Rose Garden.
“I was thirteen and my first production was ‘The Boys from Syracuse.’ It was the beginning of several summers on the boards and it expanded my love for musicals. Some of my most vivid memories are of the large flying bugs we battled each evening and the incredible electrical storms that stopped the shows four out of eight performances. But we formed a great camaraderie doing the shows. It was the most fun I had ever had to that point in my life. My parents must have had mixed feelings of pride and fear, as I performed until 11 p.m. each night.”
And pride is mingled with fear even these days as the city grows and becomes, perhaps, more violent than these memories the old battlefield at Loose Park in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Dead bodies have been found under bushes near 51st and Wornall, purse snatchings and holdups occur occasionally now, and Jerry Gordon adds a sad note involving his son.
“In September of 1996, a high school senior who was my son’s best friend hung himself in Loose Park. Then, my son was arrested the next day for going and cutting the limb out of the tree the young man had used.”
Such tales of happiness, glory and sadness are bound to happen in any public place. Loose Park has gone through all of these changes and emotions, from farmland to golf course, from battlefield to park.
But these beautiful, rolling acres still call out to the visitor: “Come walk these paths. Come see the pond. Come use the swings. Come fly a kite.” And the visitor is rewarded each time.
My own favorite memory happened in 1979 after a wonderful, crashing thunderstorm. My wife and I were walking the outer path when the most gorgeous rainbow appeared. Its colors were so vivid and bright, and, having my camera with me, I took shot after shot until I felt all 24 exposures were used up. I was so happy to have captured that moment.
But when we returned to our home at 54th and Main, I was shocked when I opened the camera. No film. I had forgotten to load the camera.
And that’s the way it is with Loose Park and the Battle of Westport. Trying to re-capture memories. Holding on to fading emotions. Feeling the nostalgia of old photographs. Maybe overcoming a sense of loss. Loose Park is a touchstone in Kansas City that commands us to visit time and time again.